Glass bricks have played a starring role in some of the world’s most significant architectural gems: from Pierre Chareau’s 1932 masterpiece La Maison de Verre (House of Glass) to the glittering creations of design legends Le Corbusier, Richard Meier, Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano. Pioneered by Gustave Falconnier in the 1880s, this highly innovative material was indeed synonymous with the ambitions of early modernism, harnessing the technological possibilities of the machine age to conjure an almost cathedral-like sense of theatre and luminousness.
However, the last few decades have not been so kind to the glass brick. Perhaps owing to its unfortunate association with the stylistic excesses of the 1980s, the material once favoured by the greats of 20thcentury design would come to be unfairly dismissed as a hallmark of ostentatious suburban architecture, bringing to mind those maligned ‘feature walls’ of the greed-is-good era.
That’s all about to change. Today, the most influential architects and designers have already begun ushering in a new age of the glass brick, re-discovering the material’s timeless strength and beauty, while seizing upon the latest innovations in manufacturing to push its applications into radical new terrain.
The comeback began back in the late-1990s when, commissioned to design the headquarters of French luxury label Hermès, Renzo Piano deployed 13,000 bespoke glass blocks to clad the entire facade of a 12-story corner block in Tokyo’s Ginza district. Conceived as a ‘magic lantern’ in the middle of the metropolis, the building is characterised by the translucency of its glass skin, which glistens by day and emits a sublime, muted glow by night.
Since then, couture houses have continued to champion the highly versatile material. In 2016, architects MVRDV replaced almost all of the original masonry from the heritage facade of the Crystal Houses Building, home to Chanel’s Amsterdam flagship store with Venetian glass brick, allowing old and new elements to tessellate. The result is arresting and contemporary, while simultaneously evocative of the design DNA of Chanel, recalling the eponymous designer’s penchant for clean, utilitarian geometry as well as her famously light-filled, jewellery box-inspired atelier.
Apart from the beauty of a shimmering facade, glass bricks also offer the perfect compromise between the often conflicting needs for privacy and light, especially when it comes to residential design. The Optical House by Hiroshi Nakamura was conceived around a lush central garden, which the architect enveloped with a membrane of glass masonry. This device permits light to suffuse throughout the interiors and courtyard while keeping these private, oasis-like spaces cleverly concealed from the outside world.
Now, Austral Bricks has released Poesia, Australia’s first brick collection to draw upon traditional Murano glass-making. Available in three finishes – natural, polished and frosted – and five exquisite hues – Arctic Crystal, Aqua Marine, Blue Sapphire, Golden Amber and Smokey Quartz – the range distils the unmatched quality of Venetian craftsmanship into a material that is perfectly suited to the exciting applications of glass bricks seen among the world’s leading contemporary architects.